Eighteen environmental and civic organizations are asking a federal judge to make U.S. Steel pay a stiffer fine than the government has proposed for a 2017 hazardous chemical spill.

The proposed $601,242 civil penalty for the April 10-12, 2017, release of 902 pounds of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium from U.S. Steel’s Portage plant into Burns Waterway “does not reflect the seriousness, duration or magnitude of egregious NPDES permit violations at this facility,” the Dec. 18 letter says.

“Therefore,” the letter continues, “it is of grave concern that this revised Consent Decree will not deter another spill into Lake Michigan or bring U.S. Steel into compliance with their NPDES permit.”

NPDES stands for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

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The letter is signed by leaders of Save the Dunes, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Hoosier Environmental Council, the Izaak Walton League’s Indiana and Illinois divisions and Great Lakes Committee, Indiana's North Coast Charter Association, the Indiana Sportsmen's Roundtable, the Indiana Wildlife Federation, seven League of Women Voters organizations in Indiana, the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association, and the Sierra Club’s Hoosier Chapter.

The letter to U.S. District Court Judge Theresa Springmann also asks the court to identify a process for U.S. Steel to let the public know, through the press or other media, whenever there’s another toxic chemical release; to require the company tell people, through public forums, what it’s doing to prevent more spills; and to require the company to monitor all the heavy metals that have been released in recent spills.

In addition to the 2017 hexavalent chromium spill, which prompted temporary beach and water intake closures in nearby Lake Michigan, the letter cites six additional, smaller spills this year.

Lake Michigan and all the Great Lakes are a treasured resource and drinking-water source and deserve the highest level of protection, Alliance for the Great Lakes president Joel Brammeier said in discussing the letter.

Noting significant spills into Lake Michigan tributaries this year by the Arcelor Mittal plant as well as the U.S. Steel plant in Porter County, Brammeier said, “the way these places are being run right now is not cutting it.”

The fine against U.S. Steel should be large enough, Brammeier said, “to deter this facility from the same violation in the future, and also to send a signal to other facilities.”

The proposed consent decree, filed Nov. 20 by the U.S. Department of Justice and the State of Indiana, calls for splitting the proposed $601,242 fine evenly between the federal and state governments.

It also would require U.S. Steel to make reimbursements for the April 2017 spill: $350,653 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s response costs, $240,504 to the National Park Service for damages from beach closures and $12,564 for its response costs, and $27,512 to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for damage assessment costs.
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